In 2013, this young, promising franchise will look to take the next step—again.
A stout defense led by All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins continues to drive this team into contention, but outside of star wide receiver A.J. Green, the Bengals could use more firepower on the offensive side of the ball.
The AFC North is consistently among the toughest divisions in football, which makes the Bengals' recent form all the more encouraging.
With the Pittsburgh Steelers on the mend after missing the playoffs and the reigning Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens losing many key contributors this offseason, the divisional crown is a legitimate possibility for the Bengals this season.
Here is a look at the team's full schedule and the challenges it features, as well as some analysis as to how the season might play out for Marvin Lewis' team.
|2013 Cincinnati Bengals Schedule|
|Week||Date||Opponent||Time (ET) ||TV|
|1||Sept. 8 ||at Chicago Bears ||1 p.m. ||CBS|
|2||Sept. 16 ||vs. Pittsburgh Steelers ||8:40 p.m. ||ESPN|
|3||Sept. 22 ||vs. Green Bay Packers ||1 p.m.||FOX|
|4||Sept. 29||at Cleveland Browns ||1 p.m.||CBS|
|5||Oct. 6||vs. New England Patriots ||1 p.m.||CBS|
|6||Oct. 13||at Buffalo Bills||1 p.m.||CBS|
|7||Oct. 20||at Detroit Lions ||1 p.m.||CBS|
|8||Oct. 27||vs. New York Jets||4:05 p.m. ||CBS|
|9||Oct. 31 ||at Miami Dolphins||8:25 p.m.||NFL Network|
|10||Nov. 10||at Baltimore Ravens||1 p.m.||CBS|
|11||Nov. 17||vs. Cleveland Browns||1 p.m.||CBS|
|12||Nov. 24||BYE WEEK||—||—|
|13||Dec. 1||at San Diego Chargers||4:05 p.m. ||CBS|
|14||Dec. 8||vs. Indianapolis Colts||1 p.m.||CBS|
|15||Dec. 15||at Pittsburgh Steelers||8:30 p.m. ||NBC|
|16||Dec. 22 ||vs. Minnesota Vikings||1 p.m. ||FOX|
|17||Dec. 29 ||vs. Baltimore Ravens||1 p.m.||CBS|
Note: For a complete look at Cincinnati's 2013 schedule, check out NFL.com.
Analysis of Opponents
Although the rest of the division seems to be in a relatively fragile state, the Steelers and Ravens are not to be taken lightly. Even the Cleveland Browns made some noteworthy moves this offseason and should see an improvement.
Outside of those six games, it doesn't get all that much easier. Cincinnati is set to play the entire AFC East division, so the New England Patriots are obviously going to be a problem.
Meanwhile, the Miami Dolphins promise to provide a massive test thanks to a completely revamped roster filled with former AFC North standouts in wide receiver Mike Wallace and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe.
The New York Jets are in disarray but always provide a tough task defensively—even potentially without shutdown cornerback Darrelle Revis. Depending on who the Buffalo Bills opt to start at quarterback, they, too, could be dangerous with a talented defense and a strong running game.
In the interconference divisional matchups, the Bengals face the NFC North. None of those teams will be easy outs. Rounding out the opposition are the Indianapolis Colts and San Diego Chargers.
The Colts made a similarly shocking run to Cincinnati's 2011 season, going 11-5 and earning a playoff berth in the first year under inspiring head coach Chuck Pagano. Armed with a lot of new additions from free agency, they should be a formidable foe once again with Andrew Luck at the helm.
As long as the Chargers get Pro Bowl QB Philip Rivers some protection, the budding defense and introduction of offensive mastermind Mike McCoy as head coach should make for a stern test.
Most Pivotal Matchup
Projecting the true difficulty of a schedule is nearly impossible to do at this juncture, since the NFL has so much parity and teams' trends vary so frequently.
The divisional games against the Steelers and Ravens, though, will prove just how legitimate this Cincinnati team is. Much of the Bengals' current nucleus hadn't beaten either team until the last two games of the 2012 season.
Baltimore sat its starters for most of the regular-season finale, which the Bengals won, and Pittsburgh was a team reeling and with its star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger not playing near 100 percent.
Those breakthrough victories didn't translate to playoff success, but they can't be completely dismissed. Also noteworthy are the two games against the Browns from last season.
Brandon Weeden shredded the Cincinnati secondary in both games for explosive plays, the latter of which was a Cleveland victory.
If third-year Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton can be supplied with a consistent running game and another weapon, it would do wonders for Cincinnati in drawing coverage away from Green.
It looks like a difficult slate ahead, but at this point, the AFC North schedule looks to be the most difficult stretch.